The year was 1948. Harry Truman won the presidency, despite what the front page of the Chicago Tribune had mistakenly declared that year. Gas cost 26 cents a gallon. Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra ruled the radio.
In Chicago, at Tribune Tower, the newspaper’s colorful editor and publisher Colonel Robert McCormick, was enamored with a new mass medium.
“We are undertaking our adventure into television at the earliest possible moment,” McCormick said. “We are setting out as soon as we can. We are going as far as we are able.”
“Col. McCormick, who ran the Chicago Tribune was always very interested in these new mediums that were coming about,” David Plier, chairman of the board of The Museum of Broadcast Communication, said.
Television was in its infancy, and Chicago – the crossroads of America — was becoming a center of the grand experiment.
“Where television was going to go was still quite unknown,” Plier said.
Pioneers had tinkered with the mechanical transmission of pictures, but television burst into a new era with electronic transmission, and the invention of the cathode ray tube.
“It was a large, big glass tube,” Rick Morris, a dean and professor at Northwestern University’s school of Communication said. “It entertained us by writing a picture on that tube. The cathode ray tube that was in the home, and those are the tube televisions that many of us have seen and used throughout our lives.”
A Zenith experimental station went on the air in the 1930s, long before consumers had their own TV sets. In the early 1940s, WBKB became Chicago’s first commercial station, and in March of 1948, Channel 9 became the Second City’s second commercial television station. Its first experimental telecast was the Golden Gloves boxing tournament, broadcast from the organ loft at Chicago Stadium.
“We hooked up all the equipment and did 48 consecutive Golden Glove bouts out at Chicago stadium on March 3,” Jack Jacobson, a retired WGN cameraman said.
Tribune executives decided to name the station after the Chicago Tribune’s masthead slogan – “World’s Greatest Newspaper.”
“In Chicago, people knew what WGN Radio was all about – they actually played with a couple of different names for WGN, it was WGN-B, and they just said, look we already have the name, it’s already on the moniker on the newspaper, it’s already on the radio station let’s just make this one big happy family and call this WGN,” Plier said.
About one month after broadcasting boxing – on April 5, 1948 – WGN-TV began in earnest with a two-hour premiere live from the WGN Radio theatre at Tribune Tower, hosted by a fresh face, with a familiar voice: “Jack Brickhouse was the first face of WGN-TV, and he already was on WGN Radio for many, many years.”
It was the first official telecast on Channel 9. The program featured stars like Joey Bishop, and Lee Bennet. The WGN orchestra performed. The broadcast was relayed through a mobile video unit nicknamed the ‘Blue Goose’ to WGN’s antenna atop the Daily News building on West Madison Street.
“This (WGN) was the station that really made the splash long before ABC, CBS, or NBC ever came to play,” Plier said.
The early broadcasts originated from converted radio studios at Tribune Tower, where WGN-TV developed a first-of-its kind soundproof “floating studio.”
“Studios – especially when they’re in the middle of downtown Chicago can hear trucks rumbling, and cars rumbling, and crowds outside, so you really have to sound isolate a studio,” Morris said. “That technique is still used today. It’s called a floating floor, and to this day when you construct a studio if you want a high-quality, soundproof studio using something that in the industry is often called a hockey puck. It’s a resilient piece of rubber and you put many, many, many of them across the floor to help it float.”
“It was very experimental at the time – but it was a floating studio,” Plier said. “So, there would be vinyl bags filled with air along the floors, the wall, the celling to keep noise out of the building. There were television stations from around the country that came to see.”
WGN’s first full day of programming included current affairs show “the Chicagoland newsreel,” on which Chicago mayor Martin Kennelly appeared. There was a children’s puppeteer program called “Wonder House,” a homemakers show called “Chicago cooks with Barbara Barkley,” which was produced at the Goldblatt’s department store on State Street.
There were also several hours of the WGN test pattern, which was fondly recalled by William Friedkin. “What we saw was a test pattern,” he said. “The test pattern showed a profile of a Buffalo Indian, and I remember staring at this Indian for hours and it was magic, and it was fascinating, it was like mythological and biblical that this image was coming into our home.”
Friedkin, the legendary Hollywood director of “The Exorcist” and “the French Connection” started his career in the WGN mailroom and worked his way up to director eventually overseeing more than two thousand hours of live TV on WGN.
He said the early days of television felt like an expedition into uncharted territory. “It was new ground,” he said. “It was the difference between people who settled this country and those who live here today in relative comfort and ease.”
Only about 100,000 homes in the Chicago area had television sets in the late 1940s.
“Television absolutely was a miracle happening.” Morris said. “People would gather in front of the televisions in retail stores and just watch them because many people didn’t have television. but they were eager to buy them. Television was one of the fastest adopted technologies by the consumer, because it was fascinating, and it was what they wanted. People will do anything for their entertainment, and television was entertainment. It brought things from New York and from the stages of Chicago into their homes.”
Among the new WGN programs “Club Television” a vaudeville style production that attracted singers and stage actors looking for exposure.
“At this particular time, television was new and the stars would come to town, they’d be playing a nightclub or a theatre or be in a play or something like that and they all wanted to be on,” Robert Trendler, a longtime director of the WGN Orchestra, said.
In the early days, WGN was affiliated with two national networks – Dumont and CBS.
“At that time when stations launched, you could have been a network affiliate for several different networks, so when WGN hit the airwaves, there was independence to it, but it also was, for entertainment programs, an affiliate for the Dumont television network that lasted just under ten years, and with CBS as well,” Plier said.
Regional feeds, through which local stations sent programs to other cities, were common on the East Coast and in the Midwest. In January of 1949 coaxial cable connected stations from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, meaning shows produced in Chicago, were reaching national audiences.
“So, WGN famous for having live television from morning until night had a few years to grow, and to establish itself as really one of the most prolific live centers of production in the country,” Morris said.
Just as WGN was trailblazing the new technology, it was also pioneering the programming. The first ever televised beauty pageant, the “Miss U.S. Television” contest – complete with a swimsuit category – was produced by WGN from the Chicago fair of 1950, and then fed nationwide to Dumont-affiliated stations in 14 TV markets.
“This is Music,” the precursor to popular bandstand-style programs, was produced at WGN in 1951 and fed to Dumont.
The first TV courtroom drama, “They Stand Accused,” had a real-life judge presiding over a courtroom set as real-life attorneys grilled actors and actresses who played the roles of witnesses. A jury selected from the WGN studio audience reached a verdict at the end of the show.
“Your Figure Ladies” was an exercise program long before Peloton instructors were on our home screens.
“WGN was often first in what it was doing – or almost first,” Morris said.
In 1952, as the other stations in the city declined to broadcast the auto show, deeming it too complicated, WGN welcomed the challenge.
In the ‘60s a show called “International Café” offered viewers a weekly menu of entertainment from different ethnic backgrounds.
And from the beginning, there was baseball.
“Just one year after they started broadcasting, they rolled up a mobile unit to Wrigley Field, and started their legacy of broadcasting baseball,” Morris said. “It was one of the best American pastimes, and one of the best ways for a new television station to draw an audience.”
By the late 1950s, WGN-TV was outgrowing its shared space with WGN Radio at the Tribune Tower. The station purchased a vacant lot near the corner of Western Avenue and Addison Street across from Lane Tech high school.
In 1961, WGN moved into the gleaming new Continental Broadcast Center at 2501 West Bradley place. The sun was setting on the ‘golden age’ of television — and WGN was set to begin a new era in color and independent.
“What was special about WGN was its independence,” Morris said. “Its independence of mind, and its independence of programming.”